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Cover Story: Designs on Art

CAC mixes the past, present and future of Cincinnati design in a new exhibition, Graphic Content

By Laura James · December 6th, 2006 · Cover Story
  Cincinnati By Design: Charley Harper and other graphic designers are celebrated in a new CAC exhibition.
Geoff Raker

Cincinnati By Design: Charley Harper and other graphic designers are celebrated in a new CAC exhibition.

The timing couldn't be better. The Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) opens an exhibition Friday that is determined to bring some oomph -- and some people -- back to the adrift arts hub.

Graphic Content: Contemporary and Modern/Art and Design is one of the last shows curated by Matt Distel, who left the CAC earlier this year, and one of the last seen through by former Director Linda Shearer, who resigned in September, and Distel's curatorial replacement, Toby Kamps, who announced his resignation last week. Though not planned as such, it could be just what the CAC needs right now -- fascinating art that distracts attention from its internal management chaos.

The exhibition follows in the footsteps of last year's Gadget: Mechanics and Movement in Contemporary Art, which provided viewers a slightly didactic introduction to one shape that contemporary art can take. The idea is to have small, successive exhibitions, each of which follows a major theme in contemporary art.

As such, the whole of Graphic Content will explore the pioneering of modern design and fast-forward to where those beginnings have landed in the 21st century.

Especially exciting is that so much of the pioneering work was created in Cincinnati. The artists serving as anchors in each of the installments have some connection to our city, whether working, studying or teaching here.

Not only does Graphic Content tell a story about contemporary art, it also teaches us some of the hidden art history of Cincinnati.

Distel recalls his initial thoughts about the exhibition.

"I had been looking back at the CAC's history and was struck by the contributions of the Cincinnati community," he says by telephone from Peekskill, N.Y., where he's director of the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art. "Particularly in terms of catalogue design. The work seemed so forward-thinking to me."

And thus began something quite fascinating.

"It occurred to me that the identity of the CAC was really forged in those early years and how many of the people who were part of that were still around but not active with the museum," Distel says.

Research began here, specifically with the work of Noel Martin, an Art Academy of Cincinnati professor for many years. Martin's lines, forms and bold colors were new and fresh in the 1940s and '50s, when the CAC was still known as The Modern Art Society.

His work, brilliant and vast in itself, also influenced a huge number of Art Academy students -- including Malcolm Grear and Charley Harper, the two modernist pioneers who kick off Graphic Content this weekend.

In the beginning
Charley Harper came from a farm in rural West Virginia to study at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He was soon drafted into the Army and served in World War II.

He returned to Cincinnati after the war but left again quickly after being accepted into the Art Students League in New York City.

"I hated New York," Harper says in his Over-the-Rhine studio.

He returned to the Art Academy in less than a year and says he soon "won the first traveling scholarship and the hand of my wife," Edie Harper.

Edie had already graduated from the Academy, a designer herself. (Her work will appear in a later installment of Graphic Content, from June to September of next year.)

Charley and Edie traveled across the country together before setting up a studio in Cincinnati, where they've remained, working as commercial artists, for almost 60 years. They have been freelance designers, drawing for outlets as varied as Betty Crocker Cookbook and the Audubon Society.

Charley Harper is best known for his illustrations in the children's book The Golden Book of Biology, which was more than once read by a young Todd Oldham. Oldham is internationally recognized as one of the most prolific and influential designers working today. He creates in sundry forms, from clothing to living spaces to furniture and beyond.

Oldham's work bridges gaps between design theory and practical applications, according to CAC's exhibition press material: "With many of his projects Oldham has quoted from the language of modernity, providing new perspectives on mid-century artists and designers."

But it's that book he pored over as a child -- The Golden Book of Biology -- that Oldham wants to talk about.

"Those illustrations mean so much to me," he says.

For the first time, he saw "the wings and not the feathers." In other words, through Harper's pictures he saw biology and image-making itself in an entirely new way.

Harper, reacting to Oldham on the subject, says, "I don't think there was much resistance to the way I simplified things. I think everybody understood that. Some people liked it, and others didn't care for it. There's some who want to count all the feathers in the wings and then others who never think about counting the feathers, like me."

Many years later, Oldham came upon Harper's work again and realized it wasn't all about children's books.

Harper's design was a language that Oldham understood. For the past three years, he's been researching and writing a book on Harper's work, and Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life comes out in May 2007.

Distel says it was chance that he and Oldham should meet and work together on Graphic Content. Through a series of random events, Distel discovered that Oldham was working on several projects with Harper.

"Harper was an artist I knew a lot about and thought could be an integral part of the show," Distel says. "Once Todd and I were able to get together to discuss the shared interest, it became obvious that (the CAC) should invite Todd to take a more active role in the exhibition."

Oldham agreed.

"Matt Distel is a genius curator," he says from his Todd Oldham Designs offices in New York City. "I've always been a big fan of the CAC, and it seemed natural to celebrate the past and the future together (in one exhibition). We decided to get four or five great art ancestors ... and to find their kindred spirits."

Oldham's New York-based studio made the graphics for the exhibition, but he doesn't consider himself a part of the show.

"All I did was hold a flashlight," Oldham says. "If you see anything of me, I've done it wrong."

The problem with identity
In theory, Distel and Oldham had come up with a great idea for an exhibition that celebrates local art at a time when our art institutions -- and contemporary art in general -- were at their peaks.

But discrepancies lurk. The most obvious is not aesthetic but theoretical, and it comes in the form of the "kindred spirit," namely Ryan McGinness.

McGinness' art, particularly the screen-printing and painting, is decidedly reductive in form, like both of his "predecessors" in the show, Harper and Grear. It looks like graphic design but with a flourish.

Oldham notes that McGinness' work is created, like Harper's and Grear's, "with so few gestures" and still there is "so much communication coming from it."

"What was interesting to me in terms of the design-based work," Distel says, "was that (the Cincinnati-based pioneers) seemed just as aware of and influenced by the European avant-garde as they were by what was happening in the States. ... The early years of the CAC were keenly focused on the European scene and American counterparts."

From there it seems a likely step to balance this older generation with a younger one, following in the open-minded programming tradition of the CAC -- a kind of balancing act.

So Distel and Oldham thought about whom to match up.

"We needed synergy on every level," Oldham says. "Charley and Ryan go well together because of their use of color, their medium (they both use a lot of silk-screening) and their point of view."

And yet McGinness doesn't seem to know who Oldham is. At one point he asks, "He's a fashion designer, right?"

Odd, considering that Oldham is actually a major player in all kinds of American design. Even more odd, Oldham is acting as a co-curator for this artist's work, matching him up with one of his own idols, Charley Harper.

McGinness, based in New York City, doesn't know Harper's work either. Or Grear's. He doesn't seem to know much about this exhibition at all.

"My work is confusing to people," says McGinness, who was part of the CAC's Beautiful Losers "street culture" exhibition in 2003. "It looks like graphic design, iconic and graphic, but it's something else."

That something else, he says, is art. Or, even better, "art for art's sake."

McGinness says he's incredibly careful not to get mixed up in the whole commercial art thing. Corporations contact him all the time, yet he "fight(s) them off on a weekly basis." They want to co-opt his art for their purposes, he says, to "help (them) look cool." But that's not what his work is.

How is graphic design different from art?

"The two industries can be defined in terms of service and commodities," McGinness says.

Doesn't he sell his work? Isn't "art" itself a commodity?

"I sell paintings and works on paper, but there's no sales agenda," he says.

And what about the T-shirts and skateboards and public works?

"I love making shirts and books and skateboards and more accessible works that are an extension of who I am," McGinness says. "I will, however, not make these things for anyone, and therefore the shirts are all under my own label, as are the other objects."

As for the language and the messages in his work, he hopes there isn't a "clear legibility." It's more abstract, like poetry, he says, adding that his work doesn't exist "to tell you where the bathroom is."

But does that mean we need to argue that the Art-Nouveau Paris Metro signs aren't art because they're functional and quite obvious in their langage? Is it as crass and as simple as that? When it's not the message that's poetry, it's the design?

More directly, what about Grear and Harper and Oldham, those famous designers whom McGinness confesses he doesn't know? Their work isn't pointing you toward the bathroom, either, but I'm sure they'd tell you if you asked.

The content of design is communication
Grear, in particular, is proud of the graphic design work he's done for organizations such as the Guggenheim in New York, Harvard University and "most museums in the country," not to mention less art-focused, run-of-the-mill businesses like Microsoft.

Grear studied at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in the 1950s and was a student of Harper's as well as of Noel Martin's.

"It was a wonderful time to be (in Cincinnati), those four years," he says by telephone from his office in Providence, R.I.

He and his teachers weren't so far apart in age or in experience. Grear first came to Cincinnati on the G.I. Bill and soon went overseas for World War II.

"I spent four years in the Navy," he says. "The communication was terrible."

Before he went to Japan, he saw posters in favor of the war.

"I was a country boy from Kentucky," Grear says, remembering the billboards that insulted and smeared the Japanese people and identity. "Japs, they called them then. But when I went over there, I found that they were honorable people, the Japanese. I was misled."

It was upon his return and during his subsequent time at the Art Academy that he decided to become a designer.

"I don't know what I graduated as," Grear says. "I studied photography and sculpture, too, but I knew I wanted to be a designer."

Under the guidance of Harper and Martin, graphic design didn't have a "trade school kind of philosophy." It was art, plain and simple.

That's exactly why he believes himself so fortunate to have been in Cincinnati when he was.

"I wouldn't have become a designer if I were in the new generation," he says.

There's a perceived dissociation between art and design, yet Grear doesn't see the two industries at odds in any way. He finds it terribly unfortunate that people tend to think that way today.

"Then," he says of the '50s, "no one objected to commercial art. It was a new, purposeful kind of communication."

It was right before Grear began his tenure at the Art Academy that Noel Martin had a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art.

"I remember the curator of the MoMA saying that graphic design was the highest form of art," Grear says.

He hadn't heard anything about it before.

Grear has become hugely important in the past half-century. He taught at the Rhode Island School of Design for 39 years, helping form the graphic design department, all the while working on logos and other forms of commercial art. He holds five honorary doctorates ("Not to be an egomaniac," he promises).

The cornerstones of his work, according to the CAC's exhibition press material, are "the practice of inventing a solution where none exists," together with his view that "good design can bring not just beauty but can serve as a source of inspiration."

The reconciliation
Both Grear and Harper are playing their hand pretty close to their hearts in Graphic Content. Both are working with the curators and the installation team to form the design of the exhibition itself.

One of the walls, Grear tells me (twice, apparently to make sure I remember), will be full of his logotypes and corporate symbols. He chose these works because he believes them to be the most difficult thing he can do as a designer -- creating a visual identity, working with just bits and pieces of ideas and/or commerce.

Perhaps because of this belief in what he's doing, Grear has been able to produce some of the most recognizable images in the world. Yet after all this time working, designing and creating, he has no concept of slowing down.

"I thought design was retirement," he says, laughing.

As for Harper, "I'm 84 years old," he says. "And because of Todd and my son Brett, this is the most active time in my career."

He has worked with Oldham in deciding which of his works will be in the exhibition. He's helping with the installation, too. He wouldn't miss it.

"There's always been a difference (between so-called high art and design)," he says. "Maybe this exhibition will change that."

Oldham would like to think so. He is featuring his studio-designed chairs, which Harper's textiles will cover. The chairs will be in the middle of the gallery space, which says something about the way Oldham sees design.

"All kinds (of design) warms your heart," he says. "You should be able to sit down, sit there (on Harper's designs) and look at the design all around. You should be able to sit and blur the line a little bit."

The line, as Oldham sees it, isn't just the theoretical one between design and high art -- it's between space and design, life and design. Design is everywhere among us. It should be worth looking at.

"I hope the exhibition will bring a lot of people who wouldn't ordinarily come to the CAC," he says. "I hope it gives them new ways to look at art."

In the end, Graphic Content isn't just about design, logos and technique but about how artists and their viewers see art and design, or art versus design. Does it matter who, besides the artist, profits from the work? Whether it's a gallery or a corporation? Does anything else matter if you find yourself face-to-face with something beautiful?

Graphic Content exposes us, perhaps unwittingly, to these questions. And because it's a philosophical question and not one of mathematics, it's completely up to you.

GRAPHIC CONTENT: CONTEMPORARY AND MODERN/ART AND DESIGN opens at the Contemporary Arts Center Friday and continues through February 2008 with various pairings of designers. Work by Charley Harper, Malcolm Grear and Ryan McGinness runs through Feb. 26, 2007. Friday is being proclaimed Charley Harper Day by the city of Cincinnati. Friday's opening night party (7-11 p.m.) features exhibition designer Todd Oldham, while Harper and Grear speak about their work at 2 p.m. Saturday in the CAC's Performance Space. Both events are free and open to the public.


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